Visiting Tokyo in Winter

Tokyo in Winter

It’s been over three months since we first arrived in beautiful, frenetic, freezing cold Tokyo. I had been waiting for that moment for such a long time! Japan had been top of my travel bucket list for years. I was so excited I even took a beginners’ Japanese course before we left the country, which gave me even greater appreciation for and interest in the culture. すごい でした!

It’s been a little while, so I can’t give as much detail as I’d like. I hope I can give some sketches and impressions of the experience as a whole instead.

(See this post for our itinerary/tips for things to do in Tokyo)

Display at the Tokyo National Museum
City Scenes, Tokyo
Shopkeeper on Nakamise-dori, Tokyo
Bubbles in Yoyogi Park, Tokyo

Tokyo in chilly February

We knew that visiting in February would mean we’d avoid the crowds and expense of the peak season (hooray!). The tradeoff was that we would be giving up a chance at seeing the city and country at its best – adorned in cherry blossom.

Trading fluffy sakura for skeletal trees was heartbreaking at first, but to my delight blossom arrived unseasonably early on the occasional tree. In Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden I even stumbled upon a cluster of blossoming trees, with tiny green birds flitting around the branches.

Beyond glimpses of blossom, though, I actually came to appreciate the look of Japanese stroll gardens in the stark winter light. With much of the greenery pared back, things take on a more minimal, structural quality, which has a spartan beauty of its own. Especially set against a bright blue sky and glittering koi ponds.

Winter branches and a bridge, Tokyo
Spidery branches in Tokyo
Photographs of sakura, Tokyo
Sakura in Winter, Tokyo

Warmth in aesthetics and tradition

I found the cool garden landscapes warmed by historic structures, decoration and traditions. The temples and shrines we visited were a particular source of a sort of warmth. (Figuratively speaking of course, the temperature was still cold!)

I realise I’m grouping different types of religious buildings together here, but they all seemed so elegant and other-worldly to us. We were thrilled to find so many of them, big and small, scattered throughout the city. There was even a small shrine down a side street from our Airbnb! It seemed out of place surrounded by apartment blocks, but was lovely to see.

The following are some of my favourite festive details from our visits:

  • red bibs and knitted caps proudly worn by otherwise solemn Buddhas
  • Ema wishing plaques were full of exquisite writing (I can’t get enough of kanji!) and drawings, strung up with coloured elastic like christmas tree decorations
  • Omikuji – paper fortunes – strung across posts like garlands of spiky white flowers
  • Incense hanging in the air as people approached the brazier, squinting into the smoke, to light their own contribution at Sensoji
  • A series of wedding processions at the Meiji Shrine, complete with parade of delicate kimonos and a bright red parasol

Incense at Sensoji, Tokyo

Temple scenes, Tokyo

More temple scenes, Tokyo

Awe-inspiring and efficient, no matter the season

Tokyo’s temples are grand as well as festive – a staggering pagoda scraping the sky, a vast roof atop a shrine. Many of the buildings are reproductions, but they’re so impressive that I started not to mind too much about authenticity.

I’m focusing a lot on the temples, but there’s plenty of grandeur beyond these. The Tokyo National Museum had some lovely mid-century details and the Metropolitan Government Building was so sleek and symmetrical that I was entranced! I stood trying to photograph different perspectives for a good while. Also, the view from the observation deck there was fantastic and free of charge!

It’s such a stereotype that Japan is efficient. I’m speaking with regard to the transport system particularly here, but I found it completely true! It was so good I might even write a separate post just singing its praises.

Government Metropolitan Building, Tokyo

Grand spaces at the Imperial Palace and Tokyo National Museum

Tokyo metro platform

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo

Shibuya Crossing at night, Tokyo

This is already getting long, so I’m going to give you the rest of my Tokyo impressions in a little bulleted list. Here goes!

  • Japanese washlets are the best toilets ever. I really really want one. This isn’t Tokyo-specific of course, but Tokyo was where we first encountered them.
  • I was so looking forward to Harajuku but found the Takeshita dori very run down. I hoped for cool and kawaii stuff but nothing in the displays seemed remotely cute. I wonder if I missed something there?
  • The Shibuya crossing was epic, I saw it by night and by day and loved it both times. Although I did see a guy stop in the middle to take photos even when the lights changed. Needless to say there was a torrent of beeping. I watched with relief as he dodged his way back to the pavement!

Over to you

Have you visited Japan in winter? Or are you planning a trip? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

P.S. My guide to Kyoto in winter and my 14 day Japan Itinerary (including expenses and planning tips!).

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Tokyo in Winter



4 thoughts on “Tokyo in Winter

  1. Anne-Sophie

    I went to Japan last year during cherry blossom season and I’m now planning my second trip for December! Reading all of your posts for inspiration 🙂
    I look forward to seeing the tourist sites less crowded!

    1. Lorna Post author

      Ooh, that’s awesome. I’m jealous! Hope you have a brilliant time (and that you find the posts helpful!) 🌸😊

  2. Shalla

    That was a great post thank you ! May I ask when you went there?
    I’m planning a trip to Tokyo as well actually I thought about going in March/April but after your guide I think it might be even a better idea to go in winter to avoid the crowds.

    1. Lorna Post author

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Shalla!

      We visited early-mid February. There are definitely advantages and disadvantages to each season, though. I suppose it largely comes down to how important the weather is to your experience. I found the February weather milder than I’d expected in the cities, though still chilly, but there’s a chance we just got lucky!


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